St Robert of Newminster (1970)

Longsight

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Postcode: M13 0PL

 

Today, the ethnic diversity of Longsight is immediately apparent in the variety of its places of worship. These include the Anglican St Luke’s Church and Neighbourhood Centre, the Jain Simaj Temple, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Pokrov, as well as a number of mosques. In the post-war period Longsight was, along with Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Levenshulme, the destination of choice for Manchester’s increasingly aspirational, and predominantly Roman Catholic, Irish communities. Continual population churn provides a partial explanation for the construction and subsequent demise of St Robert of Newminster, a catholic church that once stood on the corner of Hamilton Road and Montgomery Road.

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The parish of St Robert was established in 1915, and a dedicated church erected in 1929. Through the years the parish continued to grow and, by 1963, average Sunday attendance stood at over 1,500 persons across the four masses served. Consequently, the existing building was deemed inadequate and, in 1961, plans for a new church, traditional in plan and form, were drawn up by the Preston-based architectural firm of Cassidy and Ashton.

However, when the long-incumbent priest at St Robert, Father O’Shaughnessy, died, his successor Father Brennan inherited the desire to build a new church, but not as per the prepared plans. Father Brennan entered into fraught discussions with the Right Reverend Thomas Holland, then-Bishop of Salford, arguing that the recreational, as well as spiritual, needs of the parishioners had to be met and that a hall should be provided in addition to the church and presbytery. Money was the main concern: the Bishop was aware that extravagant building projects had on earlier occasions placed a heavy financial burden on the Diocese and individual parishes. Despite this, a budget of £100,000 was agreed and Diocesan financial rules that required 75 per cent of funds to be in-hand before any new construction could commence were relaxed. The agreement came with a caution from the Bishop:

 

‘There are numerous ways…for showing the Lord how much we value him, but one of the basic requirements of all of them is that we keep our feet on the ground and build within our resources.’

 

The Manchester-based firm of Mather and Nutter, previously responsible for designing Manchester Universities Catholic Chaplaincy (1965), was asked to prepare new plans to occupy the half-acre site, and to include a church, a presbytery, and a separate hall  (see feature image above). However, when it became apparent that the inclusion of a separate hall meant exceeding the maximum sums stipulated by the Bishop, the plans were further revised to accomodate the hall in the basement of the proposed church. The intended 600-seats in the main worship space, arranged on three-sides of the nave to allow for unhindered views of the sanctuary, had to be tiered to allow ground level windows to be incorporated; these would provide natural lighting and ventilation into the hall below.

 

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The building façade largely consisted of blue-brown brick, punctuated by narrow panels of tinted glazing and supported by a concrete frame. Both the front and rear doors, of cast aluminium, were by Walter Kershaw of the Rochdale Sculptors Group, and depicted the creation of the Universe and the Apocalypse. These were complemented by a stained glass window, by Chris Burnett of the same arts collective and, set in timber framings, was located behind the font. Other items such as the tabernacle front, candlesticks and font cover were in stainless steel and, designed by the architects, were bespoke to the building.

According to Father Brennan, the interplay of light and dark was among the most important factors in the success or failure of a church. In the sanctuary, a Portland Stone altar was placed on a raised platform and lit from above by the monitor rooflight; the roof itself was clad in aluminium. In the nave, a ceiling of cedar planks was supported by laminated beams made from Douglas Fir, the walls were of a golden-coloured hand-made brick, and buff-coloured pre-cast paving slabs provided the floor finish. At the rear of the sanctuary, a raised podium gave access to a lectern and tabernacle, both items also made of Portland Stone in order to lend a visual coherence with the altar.

 

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With W. Snape & Sons of Eccles acting as main contractor, construction of St Robert began in July 1968 and, upon completion, was formally opened by the Bishop on 23rd April 1970. Father Brennan was confident that, in time, the church would acquire ‘the patina of a lovely thing’.

 

Postscript

Whilst explaining how the design of St Robert met the strict guidelines laid down by the Second Vatican Council, the opening brochure also observed that:

 

‘There are office blocks and homes and flats going up which plainly reflect a new vogue in architecture with its profusion of glass, concrete, plaster, steel and aluminium … [St Robert] could scarcely speak its concern for the future in the clothes of the past.’

 

Certainly, St Robert was not dressed in the clothes of the past. Neither were its parishioners backward looking; they celebrated the opening of the church by pressing a vinyl record of its children’s choir. Yet within a single generation, those same parishioners who contributed much to the church’s building fund had moved on. When, in 2004, the Diocese of Salford assessed their building stock in light of dwindling congregations and priest shortages, St Robert was one of fifteen Roman Catholic churches selected for closure. Demolished soon after, it never acquired the patina that Father Brennan spoke so eloquently of.

 

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For a short period, the vacated site was utilised to provide temporary accommodation for St Agnes Primary School. Today, Longsight Community Primary School occupies the site, albeit the nearby Makki Masjid has taken up partial residency whilst their new mosque is constructed on Beresford Road.

If anyone has further images of St Robert they would like to share (or a copy of the afforementioned vinyl record!) , we would appreciate it if you could contact us.

 

Acknowledgements

Feature image and interior photograph are taken from the Catholic Building Review and may be subject to copyright.

Other images are courtesy of the Manchester Local Image Collection and the Salford Diocesan Archives; with thanks to David Govier, Father Dave Lannon and Lawrence Gregory.

The Salford Diocesan Heritage Centre is located behind St Augustine’s Church, Grosvenor Square, and open to the public on Tuesday afternoons from 2pm.